Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Saying Goodbye Is Never Easy

Pet Column for the week of September 15, 2008

Related information:

Services - Pet Loss

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Coming home to an empty house without that familiar wagging tail at the door or welcoming "meow" is something all pet owners have difficulty dealing with. Dr. Jackie Wypij is a veterinary oncologist and a certified grief counselor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. She says it is important to remember that, "grief is normal and everyone moves through it at their own pace."

She goes on to explain that the loss of a pet is really disenfranchised grief, meaning that in some settings it is not socially acceptable. For example, people that have never owned an animal may not be able to empathize with someone who lost their pet.

In such situations, Dr. Wypij recommends that you "surround yourself with people who understand the human animal bond and see the loss as if it were a long time companion." It is normal to be sad, angry, or have a change in sleeping habits, but what is important is to have a supportive network of friends and family to help you work through the grieving process.

Many people often feel guilty after the loss of their pet. Pet owners commonly think "if I only had taken him to the vet sooner things would be different." But Dr. Wypij is quick to say "owners are usually the last people to realize their pet is sick." This is because from an evolutionary standpoint animals are hardwired to hide their illness to protect themselves from predators.

There are several activities pet owners can do to help deal with pet loss. Some people find it helpful to write a letter or poem to their pet. Others may collect old photos and make a collage, or plant a tree.

For some people, the grief may be overwhelming and what they really need is someone to talk to. Tegan Stoerger is the student director of the Companion Animal Related Emotions (CARE) hotline run by the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. "We frequently have people call in who live in isolated areas, or live alone and their pet was the only companionship they had," she explains.

Any pet owner who is having a difficult time overcoming the loss of their pet can call the hotline at 877/394-2273 Sunday, Tuesday, or Thursday evening from 7-9 p.m. Trained veterinary students staff the free hotline and supply callers with a caring ear to talk to as well as helpful information.

Many people eventually decide to adopt another pet. Dr. Wypij mentions that deciding if and when to get a new pet is a very individual decision. There are those who could not consider a new pet and those who adopt a new animal right away. Either way, she mentions that, "it is not sacrilegious to your pet's memory to open your heart to another pet. There is always room in our hearts to love another animal."

If you are having a difficult time after the loss of your pet, do not be afraid to seek help. There are several pet loss chat groups online, pet loss hotlines, and many books about working through grief. But for some people, that is not enough and professional help is necessary. Contact your physician if you are concerned about your mental health.